Regulations, Codes, and Standards Overview

Karen Hall, Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association

There are many types of documents of interest to those of us involved in developing codes and standards, but how do they differ? This article provides basic information on the definitions of codes, standards, regulations, technical specifications, technical reports, information reports, and recommended practices. It is intended to help the reader understand what is implied by the type of document chosen, and to help assess which type may be most appropriate for a new activity.

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines a code as a "systematic statement of a body of law," or "a system of principles or rules." They generally apply to construction, or the built environment. Codes establish minimum requirements for things like offset distances between permanent fixtures, ventilation requirements, plumbing and electrical requirements, and other items relating to a built environment. A code may reference a standard. If you are adding a deck onto your home, or expanding your porch, or installing a hot tub on your deck, you will need to get a permit. The jurisdiction having authority over your project will want to see proof that the job will be done in a way that conforms to existing codes. The code may reference applicable standards, such as Underwriters Laboratory (UL) standards, for example.

Codes are meaningless unless a state or local jurisdiction adopts them. There are over 44,000 local code enforcement agencies in the US alone. They have the option of adopting any model code from any year, and may make local code amendments. This leads to the potential for a lot of variation in codes. Codes most often encountered in the hydrogen and fuel cell arena include ICC and NFPA codes.

Webster defines a standard as "something set up as a rule for measuring or as a model to be followed." This does not appear to be very different from a code. In some cases, they really aren’t very different. Often when we talk about a standard for hydrogen system or component, we are talking about standards for the component or system, rather than the standard for installation, although those exist as well. A standard might be performance based, i.e., "each unit must meet the following tests," or it may be a design standard, i.e., "the nozzle must be made of the following materials, and have the following dimensions." Standards for manufacturing or testing unit are independent of where the unit will be used. But standards are not mandatory until they are called out someplace, such as in a code, regulation, procurement contract, or other requirements document. What standards do allow, however, is a consensus process for developing minimum technical requirements to assure uniformity of the product, including safety and performance. And often when a regulator or code official is unfamiliar with an emerging technology or new equipment design, having a standard gives that official a starting place for evaluating the technology. In addition, it gives the official some confidence that the information is based on best practices and industry consensus. It takes much of the guesswork out of the equation.

Webster further defines a regulation as "a rule dealing with details of procedure," or "an order issued by an executive authority of a government and having the force of law." For example, in the United States we have regulations from the Department of Transportation that relate to transporting dangerous and hazardous goods. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has regulations regarding what can and cannot be brought onboard an aircraft, how often an aircraft is inspected, how many consecutive hours a pilot can be on duty, etc. These regulations are generally safety-oriented.

Technical Specifications (TS)
Technical Specifications are used by ISO and IEC, among others, when the subject in question is still under development, or where for any other reason there is a future but not immediate possibility of an agreement to publish a standard. In this case it is used for "pre-standardization purposes."

A TS may also be used when the required support cannot be obtained for a final draft International Standard to pass the approval stage, or in case of doubt concerning consensus. In ISO and IEC, Technical Specifications are subject to review by the technical committee or subcommittee not later than 3 years after their publication. The purpose of this review is to re-examine the situation which resulted in the publication of a Technical Specification and if possible to achieve the agreement necessary for the publication of an International Standard to replace the Technical Specification.

Publicly Available Specifications (PAS)
In ISO or IEC a PAS may be an intermediate specification, published prior to the development of a full International Standard, or, in IEC may be a “dual logo” publication published in collaboration with an external organization. It is a document not fulfilling the requirements for a standard. A PAS remains valid for an initial maximum period of 3 years. The validity may be extended for a single 3-year period, following which it shall be revised to become another type of normative document (such as an International Standard), or shall be withdrawn.

Technical Reports (TR)
When a technical committee or subcommittee has collected data of a different kind from that which is normally published as an International Standard (this may include, for example, data obtained from a survey carried out among the members, or data on the "state of the art" in relation to standards of national bodies on a particular subject), the work may be published in the form of a Technical Report. TRs are entirely informative in nature. The technical committee or subcommittee responsible decides on withdrawal of a Technical Report.

SAE Documents
The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) issues the following types of documents. The descriptions of each type was found on the SAE website at

  • SAE Standards: These Technical Reports are a documentation of broadly accepted engineering practices or specifications for a material, product, process, procedure or test method.
  • SAE Recommended Practices: These Technical Reports are documentations of practice, procedures and technology that are intended as guides to standard engineering practice. Their content may be of a more general nature, or they may propound data that have not yet gained broad acceptance.
  • SAE Information Reports: These Technical Reports are compilations of engineering reference data or educational material useful to the technical community.

So while codes, standards, and regulations are each important requirements to protect the public, in most cases each has a unique niche. Codes generally apply to the built environment. Standards generally apply to components, systems, and testing. And regulations generally apply to transportation or rules of procedure. Each standards development organization and code development organization has specific rules for their process for consensus, and the requirements for different document types vary. For example, the ISO process for a Technical Report requires less consensus, and therefore less time, than the process for an International Standard, which has the most stringent requirements to assure consensus.

Now that we have a general feel for the differences, I’d like to point out one very real similarity. Development of a new code, standard, regulation, or any other document type listed above takes 2-5 years on average (sometimes MUCH longer). That is due to the fact that industry consensus is required, sometimes nationally, sometimes internationally. Often there is too little data available upon which to proceed. So the process slows while appropriate testing is conducted.

The need is real for hydrogen and fuel cell safety documents. And in many cases it is more immediate than the 2-5 year timeframe. I encourage you to be an active participant in the process. Those who take part in the development of the codes and standards are part of the consensus process. Please don’t rely on your competitors to do it for you. If you do, the resulting document may not support your product, and it may take longer to get a suitable document published.

We recognize that most companies cannot dedicate the resources necessary to participate in every code or standard activity. It is even difficult to identify what activities are most important for your industry or product. That is why FCHEA has a robust codes and standards program. It is also why the U.S. Department of Energy, through the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, has created the National Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Codes and Standards Coordination Committee. Together, we will help provide the tools and information you need to determine where to spend your resources.

For those who wish to track and participate in these regulations, codes, and standards efforts more closely, please feel free to contact us to learn more about how your organization can get involved with FCHEA.